The Chronicle

of a ColdFusion Expatriate

From Vim to Emacs in Fourteen Days

May 24, 2015

Yes, my friends, it is true. After more than fifteen years using Vim, teaching Vim, proselytizing about Vim, all the while scoffing in the general direction of Emacs, I’ve seen the light. The light of Lisp… Or something.

If, like me, you’re curious enough to give Emacs a try, this post should help you get off the ground.

It’s taken me at least the fourteen days described in the title, but with my help it should only take you two or three. There are some things to get used to, some new paradigms, and you have to learn a bit of Lisp (Elisp, actually), but don’t be afraid, it’s not that hard.

Step 1: Get Emacs

Emacs is available on all major platforms. For Linux OSes, you can get Emacs from your package manager du jour, i.e. apt-get install emacs. There are also Linux and Windows builds available through a local GNU mirror (this link will redirect to a mirror close to you, in theory).

For OS X (presumptuously the only reason you’d read this section…), you have at least four choices:

  • “GNU Emacs for Mac OS X”, which is a pre-built binary in common OS X dng format, ready to go. I believe it is version 24.5 at the time of this writing.
  • The default Homebrew build, brew install emacs, which of course is available in both its trunk form and with --use-git-head or --HEAD to get a more bleeding-edge version.
  • Yamamoto Mitsuharu’s experimental “Mac port” version, which adds (better) native GUI support, from a custom tap. Run brew tap railwaycat/emacsmacport and then brew install emacs-mac to get it; this one also has the typical --HEAD option available.
  • Finally, there is Aquamacs, which claims to bring more of the Aqua-style chrome to Emacs. In spite of being a moderate OS X fanboy I find this offensive and haven’t tried it myself.

Each build will be a slightly different version of Emacs, with the pre-built binaries tending toward stable trunk releases and the brew versions somewhat newer. There are a few small differences in the way they handle key codes (the Mac port version remaps “super” to “alt”, which means the Mac command key acts as alt; you may or may not like that). You can install all of them and try them out; they will all load your config seamlessly.

Learn the Basics

There are just a few essential keys you need to know to get started using Emacs in its bare form. Most of the default key mappings in Emacs are a sequence of control key presses, so, for example, C-x C-c means to press “control” and “x”, then press “control” and “c”.

In Emacs notation, which I will use here, RET means return (or “enter”), and M means “meta” or “alt”. Depending on the build of Emacs you are using and what your keyboard layout is, the physical key may vary; try each potential key until you get the expected result.

  • C-x C-c: quit Emacs. As all new Vim users must first learn :q<CR>, so must new Emacs users learn this bizarre key chord.
  • C-g: cancel. This is the one piece of muscle memory you really need to acquire; even once you have re-mapped escape to quit from 90% of circumstances, there will remain some where only C-g will get you out. Just learn it, use it, love it.
  • M-x: execute extended command. This is the gateway to a lot of the sophisticated stuff you can accomplish interactively in Emacs; it allows you to run any Elisp function by name. More on this later.
  • C-h ?: help about help. This chord opens a list of potential help topics, each of which has its own direct mapping accessible through e.g. C-h t, which opens the Emacs tutorial.

Those are the only native mappings you really need to know to get started. If you press some chord and something crazy happens, you can try backing out of it with C-g, and to learn what the chord does you can ask Emacs for help about the key by pressing C-h k and then pressing the key or chord in question.

One of the nicest things about Emacs is that it’s self-documenting. If you want to know what C-x C-c does, you can simply press C-h k to ask for help about a key and then press C-x C-c. Emacs will open the documentation for the function that the key is mapped to, and 99% of Emacs functions are documented. There are other ways to learn about mappings that we’ll talk about later.

All mappings, and by this I mean all mappings, can be re-mapped. You may take the time to re-map the ones you use a lot (for example, I created a <leader>x mapping for M-x), or you may live with the Emacs defaults; that is a choice each must make on their own.

Configure Your Environment

Configuring Emacs is easily as involved as configuring Vim, if not more so. Unlike Vim, however, Emacs ships with an interactive configuration tool that you can use as a beginner to configure basic settings without having to plumb the depths of Emacs’ numerous variables and functions. We’ll get to that later. First, get a barebones config started.

Step one is to make yourself a home for your config, if your package of choice didn’t create one for you:

  • Create the directory ~/.emacs.d
  • Create the file ~/.emacs

Open ~/.emacs in your favorite editor and paste in this nonsense, which, sooner or later, will seem quite simple and obvious to you:

(require 'package)
(add-to-list 'package-archives '("org" . ""))
(add-to-list 'package-archives '("melpa" . ""))
(add-to-list 'package-archives '("melpa-stable" . ""))
(setq package-enable-at-startup nil)

The above code loads the built-in package manager (“package”) and adds a couple of popular Emacs package repositories to the list of available repositories so that we can install the latest and greatest versions of modern Emacs packages, which are analogous to Vim plug-ins.

Start Emacs. You should now be able to press M-x to get a prompt at the bottom of the frame. Type the command package-list-packages RET. Tab completion works in that prompt, so feel free to use it to confirm that Emacs can find the function. Emacs will connect to the Internet to download package lists and open a window listing the packages available.

This part gets sticky because you need to use default Emacs key mappings to navigate the package list, so let’s just quit the buffer now that we have the package lists updated. Press q.

Install Evil Mode

Finally, install evil-mode, the Vim emulation package for Emacs, by typing M-x package-install RET evil-mode RET. A second window will open and a lot of stuff will happen in it as the package is downloaded and compiled into Emacs bytecode. Emacs packages tend to emit a lot of compiler warnings, which you can safely ignore. When it’s through, evil-mode should be installed. Let’s turn it on.

Type M-x evil-mode RET. You can now type :qa to quit all windows and close Emacs.

If all of that works, you’re ready to start building your Emacs configuration empire, and the very first thing you’ll probably want to do is use evil-mode by default.

A “mode” in Emacs is similar to Vim’s notion of a “filetype.” A mode usually provides syntax highlighting and indentation rules, keyboard mappings, and other functionality useful for a particular type of task.

Your “major mode” is the mode that typically defines the type of work you’re doing, which is often associated with the filetype you’re editing; you can only use one major mode at a time.

Emacs packages may also provide “minor modes,” of which you may load as many as you like. Examples of useful minor modes are “flycheck,” which gives you syntax checking, or “projectile,” which provides functions for working with source-controlled projects, or “magit,” which gives you interactive git commands.

To tell Emacs to use evil-mode immediately upon opening in all buffers, you simply load the package into memory and call the main mode function, which is conveniently named evil-mode. Add this to your ~/.emacs file:

(require 'evil)
(evil-mode t)

If you are editing your .emacs file in Emacs, you can find out what those functions do by placing your cursor over the word “require,” for example, and pressing C-h f to open the “help for functions” prompt; the word under the cursor will be placed into the prompt for you. Press enter and a split window will open containing the definition of the function.

Try it for evil-mode as well. To close the split window you should be able to use the typical Vim key C-w o (“only this” window). The Emacs key to do the same thing is C-x 1, because that makes sense…

Taking the Helm

One of the most popular packages available for Emacs is called Helm. It is described simply as “Emacs incremental and narrowing framework,” which doesn’t at first seem tremendously useful, but what it actually provides is the ability to display a list of values that is narrowed down as you type, similar to something like Vim’s CtrlP implementation or Sublime Text’s fuzzy search.

Now, Helm doesn’t actually search your project files or anything. No, it simply provides a framework for displaying an interactively narrowed list of things. But the staggeringly cool thing about it is that when it is installed, suddenly all of the Emacs default selection functions become interactive lists. Everything from M-x to package-install will become narrowing lists just like CtrlP.

Let’s install it!

Automatically Installing Packages

This is a perfect time to talk about how to maintain a list of packages that you always want installed. There are a lot of different ways to do this, but here is a quite simple one that you can immediately start using.

Since the Emacs package.el package manager is built into Emacs, you don’t need anything like Vundle or Neobundle or Pathogen, all you need to do is call package-install on every package that isn’t yet installed. This is easy to write in Elisp.

Update (December, 2016): I no longer recommend manually hacking this package stuff into your config as shown down below (preserved for posterity). Instead, I recommend using the awesome use-package package by John Wiegley.

You must first set up your package.el configuration as you would in any case (by configuring the repositories you would like to use, and so forth), but then you can bootstrap the whole system with this simple snippet:

(unless (package-installed-p 'use-package)
  (package-install 'use-package))

  (require 'use-package))

Then configure all of your packages using use-package forms as described in the documentation. Any package with the keyword :ensure set to t will be downloaded from a remote repository.

The simplest example is something like:

(use-package markdown-mode
  :ensure t)

The use-package system is capable of a whole lot more, and it’s allowed me to clean up and modularize most of my configuration while also optimize my Emacs startup time. I strongly recommend giving it a shot.

Deprecated advice below, continue at your own peril.

There are several ways to do this, but the simplest seems to be this Stack Overflow answer:

(defun ensure-package-installed (&rest packages)
  "Assure every package is installed, ask for installation if it’s not.

Return a list of installed packages or nil for every skipped package."
   (lambda (package)
     (if (package-installed-p package)
       (if (y-or-n-p (format "Package %s is missing. Install it? " package))
           (package-install package)

;; Make sure to have downloaded archive description.
(or (file-exists-p package-user-dir)

;; Activate installed packages

;; Assuming you wish to install "iedit" and "magit"
(ensure-package-installed 'iedit 'magit)

If you add this to your ~/.emacs, simply starting Emacs will prompt you for any packages you wish to install that are not already installed. You can expand the call to ensure-package-installed quite easily, and Elisp cares not about spacing, so you can even organize it like:

(ensure-package-installed 'evil


If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably ready to begin exploring on your own. I’ll keep posting updates as I have time to collate my thoughts and experiences, or feel free to reach out with questions by using the commenting feature below.